Red River subsides as drought drags on, but it's no cause for panic

Today's drought doesn't compare to the 1930s. The Red River in Fargo stopped flowing for 823 days beginning on July 25, 1932, the longest stretch on record that the river stopped running.

A water gauge is visible Wednesday, June 30, 2021, on the Red River near the water purification plant in Fargo. The river is low, flowing at just 17% of its average volume. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO — The Red River has been flowing at less than a sixth of its average volume and has been receding within its banks and leaving a muddy shoreline as the baking drought continues.

The volume of the Red as it meanders lazily through Fargo-Moorhead is running around 220 cubic feet per second, well below the average of 1,320 for early July. The Red’s level is about 14 feet.

Most of the Red River Valley — and all of North Dakota — is experiencing drought of varying severity, and the conditions are reflected in shrinking rivers and streams.


North Dakota is experiencing its worst drought since 2000, said Adnan Akyüz, the state climatologist. Parts of central and western North Dakota, comprising almost 18% of the state, are in exceptional drought, the most severe category.


A low water level reveals dry roots Wednesday, June 30, 2021, on the Red River in south Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

The intensity of the drought is similar to the severe droughts of the 1980s and 1930s, but the duration so far of the current drought is much briefer than those parched periods, he said.

“There are some similarities, unfortunately,” he said. “We know for sure that the intensity’s there.”

But, in terms of duration, “We are not there,” he added, noting the drought started last year, compared to the years-long droughts of the 1980s and 1930s.

The Red River in Fargo stopped flowing for 823 days beginning on July 25, 1932, the longest stretch on record that the river stopped running, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which maintains monitoring gages on the river.

The Red was brought to a standstill for two brief periods in the 1970s. In 1972, beginning Sept. 30, the river stopped flowing for two days and in 1976, starting on Oct. 10, no flow occurred for 10 days, according to the geological survey. On Dec. 2, 1910, the Red was a trickle with a depth of 5.3 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

Low Red River in 1910.JPG
The Red River in 1910, showing the railroad bridge connecting Fargo and Moorhead, taken from below NP Avenue. The Red River fell to 5.3 feet on Dec. 2, 1910. NDSU Archives


Because of the vulnerability posed by extended droughts, the Lake Agassiz Water Authority and Garrison Diversion Conservancy District are building the $1.2 billion Red River Valley Water Supply Project. The project will carry Missouri River water through a 165-mile pipeline to the Red River Valley via the Sheyenne River.

Fargo draws its water from the Red River and, in times of drought, from the Sheyenne River, which flows through West Fargo and joins the Red near Harwood.

Fargo, which also supplies West Fargo and part of the Cass County Rural Water System, hasn’t yet imposed any mandatory lawn-watering restrictions, but has asked residents to water on alternate days.

During the current drought, Fargo drew water from the Sheyenne during June, but recently switched to getting all of its water from the Red, said Troy Hall, the city of Fargo’s water utility director.

“That’s not terribly unusual,” he said of using water from the Sheyenne.

Fargo has secured rights to more than 50% of Lake Ashtabula, an emergency water supply provided by a reservoir on the Sheyenne north of Valley City, to help supply the water during extended droughts.


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To access reservoir water, the city would have to ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release water from Baldhill Dam, which funding from the city of Fargo helped build.
“We’re not really at that point yet,” he said.


Actually, Fargo has rarely reached that point. Fargo tapped Lake Ashtabula during the dry years of 1976, 1984 and 1988, according to city records. Lake Ashtabula could provide Fargo with a backup water supply for about a year, Hall said.

Two outlets on Devils Lake can contribute water to the Sheyenne, but only the west-end outlet reportedly is currently flowing, Hall said. Still, the Sheyenne at Kindred is flowing at about 150 cubic feet per second. “That’s flowing decently well,” he said.

Meanwhile, as the drought continues, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is closely monitoring falling reservoir levels on the Red River system.

Lake levels at Lake Traverse, behind Reservation Dam, near Wheaton, Minn., are within operating limits, but are the lowest they have been for this time of year since 1990. Nearby Mud Lake, behind White Rock Dam, is 0.6 feet below its summer target level of 972 feet. Releases from both dams were stopped in early June because there was no water coming into the reservoirs.

The pool elevation at Orwell Dam, near Fergus Falls, Minn., lies within the target summer range. Water coming into the reservoir is being released -- but at the lowest flow rate for this time of year since 1988.

Lake Ashtabula remains within the target summer range and continues to release water.

During a drought in 2012, flows on the Red dropped below 50 cubic feet per second, about a fifth of the current volume at Fargo, he said.

“For the short term we’re sitting OK,” Hall said. “It’s concerning, but by no means panic time.”


Fargo’s water supply actually depends more on moisture in the Minnesota lakes country than it does locally, he said.

Amanda Lee, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, said the drought had started before winter, and meager snowfall resulted in spring runoff that was 70% to 75% of normal in April and early May.

“Then it really takes a nosedive,” in late May, plunging again in June. There was essentially no runoff from the spring melt, and summer is starting hot and dry, continuing the pattern, Lee said.

“This year there was nothing to bring us up,” from the traditionally low winter river levels, she said. “We’re going to need more than an inch every month or so to break us out.”

Duration of the drought conditions will dictate how bad the drought, now rated as moderate around Fargo, becomes, Akyüz and Lee said.

The forecast for the near term provides little encouragement, Lee said. “Continued dry and warm is the forecast for now,” she said.

A multiyear drought like the one that has plagued California and the Southwest — and struck the region in the 1980s and especially the 1930s — would be a worst-case scenario.

“That could be a really big hurt,” Lee said. “But things can turn on a dime.”


Red River almost dry 1936.JPG
A man uses a board to cross the Red River between downtown Fargo and Moorhead in this 1936 photo. Clay County Historical Society

A study of the need for the Red River Valley Water Supply Project concluded that a sixth year of drought would result in a 16% water shortage. That would escalate into a 47% shortage by February of the seventh year when weather conditions wouldn’t enable any replenishment to the rivers and streams.

A 2004 climatological study for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's examination of the need for the water project concluded there was a “strong probability” that an extreme drought similar to the 1930s will occur in the Red River Valley before 2050.

The study concluded that a 1930s magnitude drought “typified the most extreme event anticipated until 2050” and provides a useful planning benchmark.

If a 1930s drought were to strike before the Red River Valley Water Supply Project is completed, Fargo could need 1,000 truckloads of water per day, The Forum reported in 2012 .


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